Work in Sports
Posted: Sunday November 07, 1999 02:44 PM
By Jim Huber, CNN/SI
He was never big enough, never mean enough, never fast enough, never elusive enough.
But for all his never, Walter Payton was always more than enough for any defense that tried to stop him.
Drawing from a depth that seemed eternal, powered by an engine of endless energy and durability, he simply refused to be stopped.
It figures that it would take the rarest of diseases, angry and unpronounceable (primary sclerosing cholangitis combined with bile duct cancer), to finally bring him down for good.
How appropriate that the man who played every one of his home games over 13 seasons at a place called Soldier Field, for if anyone ever represented the true spirit of that name, it was the block of Mississippi granite wearing No. 34. The good team soldier who simply did everything asked of him and more on teams that rarely offered much help.
Oh, how he gave himself up. Sunday after Sunday. Year after year. Reminded one training camp that he'd given his offensive lineman all gold watches the season before, he smiled and said, "This year, I'll give 'em pieces of my body."
How difficult it must have been, for memories were very fresh in the early year and comparisons quite easy. The thought of the great Jim Brown thundering through tackles, bowling over his opponents not very long before and there on the same field a decade earlier, wondrous thoughts of the silky Gale Sayers, slipping and sliding toward another end zone.
Walter Payton was neither. But in the end, he was better than the both of them and every other man who ever took a handoff. Rarely turning outside, he would simply choose his spots off tackle most times using enormous strength to churn up the yardage game after game until, at the end, he had put together another 150-yard game and nobody remembered how.
And even when you asked him and he told you, it seemed hard to believe for the voice was soft and high. Not the rumbling of Brown or the sharpness of Sayers, but a child-like Southern lilt that seemed totally out of character.
"Sweetness," an enigma in black and orange, statistically the greatest running back in NFL history. Emotionally, just a man of numbers.
Even in his greatest hour, as his Chicago Bears were trouncing the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, he was lost in he dust of a 300-pound defensive tackle. In a moment of destiny, when you must give the ball on the goal line to the man who spent so many seasons getting you there, the Bears turned instead to William "The Refrigerator" Perry. But so typically, in the face of post-game controversy, Payton merely smiled and said all that mattered was the final score. He had his Super Bowl ring, at last, and a year later he would begin his automatic journey to the Hall of Fame.
Perhaps, in death now, he shall firmly grow in proportion to his accomplishments.
Larger, much larger, than life...